Holiday 2011 — O Tannenbaum

A year and a half after finishing the year-long Duo Chronicles project, Clay suggested that we get together and put together a video for the holiday season this year.  After returning from almost three weeks in Europe on tour, I returned home and quickly wrote out an arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” (also known as “O Christmas Tree”).

Just a couple days before Christmas, we found a couple hours in our holiday schedules, dug the lights and cameras out of their boxes and put together this video.  Both of us were excited to be back to the project and doing a recording.  I’m hoping that in 2012 we’ll have some time to work on new projects together.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Week 52 – The Final Week

Well, we made it.  52 weeks later, we’ve put up a new video every single Tuesday.  Every week, a new arrangement, a new recording, a new video, and most of the time, a new composition altogether.

Most people’s reaction to me mentioning that we’re finishing the project is that they can’t believe it’s been a year already.  In some ways, I agree — it doesn’t seem like that long ago that Clay and I were first trying to figure out what we wanted to do with this series and how we wanted to make it happen.  On the other hand, I’ve learned so much, written so much, and spent so much time uploading and editing video that it really does seem like a year has gone by.

Now that we’re finishing up, I can already tell that I’m going to miss doing this.  Getting the chance to record new music this regularly has been a pleasure.  Learning how to play better as a duo has been a great learning experience — something that will carry through to other projects as well.  In fact, I think that there were plenty of lessons from this project that I’ll be putting to use later, whether they are technical things like how to best compress a video to make it look good on YouTube or more metaphysical things like musical interaction with just two voices.

For the last video, we decided that for the first time, instead of presenting a new piece, we wanted to bring back some of the music from past videos.  Each choice has a bit of a metaphorical reasoning.

Part I is a piece called Chrysalis, which was from week one of the project.  At that point, Clay and I had barely figured out what we were doing, especially in the technical sense.  The original was recorded with one camera, no sound equipment besides the mic on the camera, and the editing was done with iMovie.  We thought it would be fitting to go back and redo the piece with all of our technical and production advancements, as well as with a new musical direction.  If you really want to get metaphorical with the title, you could look at the project emerging from the chrysalis over time and growing.

Part II is Clay’s composition Always April.  Ever since we recorded it, I’ve felt like this piece well represents the musical goals of the project.  It’s certainly jazz-related, although not in a typical swing fashion.  It’s focused on a beautiful melody, with the type of chord changes that we both tend to gravitate towards when writing.  The title also seemed to fit for a piece about the middle section of a year-long project.

Finally, we transition into Part III — a composition of mine called One Foot Forward.  We chose this because of the upbeat energy the piece has, and once again, the metaphorical meaning of the title — we’re finishing this project, but we both have one foot forward into the next already.

Try to make it through all 10 minutes — we’re proud of the last installment that we’ve done.  If you’ve been watching since the beginning, you may enjoy seeing the different directions we take the pieces.  If you’re relatively new to the project, this should give a good glimpse into what we’ve done for the past year.

Thanks so much, new fans and old, for watching!

Week 49 – Aurora

“Aurora” is an attempt to do something new in the Duo Chronicles project — a way to use some techniques that we haven’t yet explored in the 48 previous tunes.

The song is based on a simple melody (in fact, the sheet music we used had the temporary title “Simple Melody”) with an equally simple harmonic underpinning.  If one wanted to analyze it from a jazz point of view, the form is derived from the blues, although you might not realize it without stretching your ears a bit.

The first track we recorded was acoustic piano and flute, but we layered on quite a few other instruments to fill out the sound, including piccolo, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and electronic keyboard (playing a celeste type of sound).

If you listen carefully to the opening sound, when the screen fades to white, the chord that sounds like a synthesizer is actually a technique that Clay suggested that we record after we happened upon it by mistake while warming up.  The chord is actually made by recording the resonance inside the piano made by playing saxophone pointed towards the piano while holding down the sustain pedal.  It took quite a bit of audio editing to make it audible in the mix, but I think it was worth it for the interesting texture.

Week 48 – Law Of Averages

As we head to the final few weeks of the Duo Chronicles project, musically we have covered many different styles of jazz. This weeks tune, “Law Of Averages” has a meditative-gospel sound to my ears. Often music defies one singular category so descriptive terms are piled on and on like, acid-electronic-fusion-contemporary jazz, for example. At a certain point too many adjectives render musical description more confusing than useful. This descriptive process usually varies quite a bit from individual to individual.

The form is based around a repeated six bar chord progression that repeats and is varied somewhat to give a more through-composed feel. Subtle, but effective I think. Just to give a little bit of forward momentum. John and I both take short solos. The music doesn’t necessarily need virtuosic-type solo improvisations, shorter more thematic solos do just fine. Also, I added a track of organ, just to fill out the overall sound, a little bit of musical “glue.” John had a nice idea to trade soloing over the the final chords of the composition; some musical dialogue.

Week 44 – The Road Taken

The title “The Road Taken” is based on of one of more popular Robert Frost most poems, “The Road Not Taken.” The whole idea for the music stems from a particular chord that I like to use, a major chord with the 4th added so a kind of consonant dissonance occurs between the 3rd and 4th steps in the chord. In improvising one would usually refer to the mode, in this case the Ionian mode, which is the 1st mode of major scale harmony. I like the contemplative nature of this sound, open to me, and good place to start the music from. The melody then ascends and descends alternating between major and minor chords. The improvising takes place over the form of the melody with the 1st chord extended for a bit at the beginning. I liked how this distinguished the piano and saxophone solos. If one looks at the written lead sheet there is a two measure ending. On the take that we used however, I liked just fading on two repeated chords, an ending just seemed too final. The aspect of recording influenced the form and arrangement of the composition which I find interesting. Recording becomes part of the composition process.

Week 42 – The Memory of Water

This is a special week for Duo Chronicles — not only do we have a regular duet video to present, we also have a video of a different performance of the same song featuring a spoken-word performance by writer Lynn Darroch.

“The Memory of Water” (the title is co-opted from Lynn’s story, featured in the other video), is divided into two distinct sections.  The first section has a melodic statement that repeats twice, each time through a different progression of chords.  The second section has what is called a “pedal point,” meaning a repeated common tone, usually in the low register.

When Clay and I set out to record the piece, we decided that the second section of the piece might fit will with some extended techniques.  In particular, Clay experiments with using different percussive effects on the piano, including an idea taken from modern classical “prepared piano” pieces that involve putting objects inside of the piano.  In this case, it was a piece of paper on top of the strings.

Week 41 – Be Smart, Be Cool…

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been at Portland Center Stage as part of the orchestra for a production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  The show is a musical comedy, following a rather unusual group of children (as well as some audience volunteers) through a farcical spelling bee in which the word the students are challenged with is just as likely to be chosen because of its ridiculous definition as its difficulty to spell.

The score to the show is an uncommon combination of instruments, with myself on reeds (flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone), Liz Byrd on cello, Ben Wasson on percussion, Kurt Crowley on synthesizer, and our musical director, Rick Lewis, on piano.  Instead of playing from an orchestra pit below and in front of the stage, our orchestra instead plays behind the back wall of the stage (if Superman were in the audience with his X-ray vision, he’d see us performing behind the actors) with the music piped in through a sound system.

William Finn’s compositions for the show run the gamut from quirky themes that complement the comedy on stage, to powerful melodies that support the more emotional moments.  Unlike some musicals, where orchestras get bored quickly with ironically the often less-than-musical compostions, there’s always something new to find in Finn’s score, which I’ve been scouring to find bits and pieces to serve as inspirations for Duo Chronicles pieces.

The title for this piece is taken from the lyrics of a song in the show called “Woe is Me,” sung by a character who is pushed by her two dads to “be smart, be cool, be adult” and “be remarkably adroit in social situations.”  I toyed with other titles that didn’t sound as flippant, but in the end, it seemed like that line just worked best.  In the show, the cast breaks into a Stomp-inspired dance section in the middle of “Woe is Me,” where the 3-part vocals harmonies are accompanied by the percussion sounds made by clapping, stomping, and dancing on stage.  Something about 3-part vocal a cappella always gets me interested, so from the first time that I heard that section performed by the PCS cast, I knew I wanted to do something with it.

For the Duo Chronicles piece, I took that section and started altering it bit by bit.  The first change was the time signature — instead of being 4/4 like the piece in the show, our version is in 7/4.  The next, was the structure — we start with the “Be Smart, Be Cool” section, and the “Woe is Me ” hook happens in the middle.  The vocals have been replaced by three overdubbed saxophone parts.  Instead of the Stomp-inspired percussion, Clay and I use a couple tracks of clapping and a track of using storage boxes as percussion instruments.

Throughout the song, I tried to reference each of the distinct sections from Finn’s composition.  There are direct references in the piano part, the clarinet parts, and certainly the saxophone parts.  After all of the revisions and editing, making it fit the Duo Chronicles style, it ended up farther from Finn’s “Woe is Me” than I had intended originally, but only because Clay and I are putting our own spin on things.  Check out the sheet music from the link below.

Since I’m at Portland Center Stage doing this show eight times a week until the end of June, it wouldn’t surprise me if another Finn-inspired song makes its way into the Duo Chronicles songbook before we’re done.

Week 40 – Perimeter

In writing this composition, I decided not to write chord changes purposely. This gives the improviser the utmost freedom in a sense, hence the term “free jazz” or “avant-garde” which have been coined to describe this style. Without a harmonic structure the improviser must then create some shape on his/her own or by interacting with other musicians. Since the melody is comprised of mostly two-bar phrases, John made an interesting suggestion to improvise based off these phrases or two bar cells or cellular improvisation. By that I mean that the improviser is free to play these melodic fragments in any order or repeat them without rules. This shows the influence of twentieth-century classical music, but with the interaction aspect of jazz. This way of playing then defines the structure. We did three takes, all of which were quite different due to the open nature of the music, but the third one seemed to have the best interaction.

Week 39 – The Valley Below

Influence is all around us whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately what resonates with us comes out in how we express ourselves and in our art. Chances are if a thought or idea resonates with you, it probably does with someone else as well. I like to think of this as a kind of collective consciousness. I listen to music frequently while driving, as I suspect many people might do. Two CD’s that have been in the car lately (I don’t get around to changing them that often) are Brad Mehldau’s latest “Highway Rider” and a mix CD of Foo Fighters songs. So I was influenced by this music I’m sure when I wrote “The Valley Below” two days ago. Not because I want to sound like Brad Mehldau, but something in that music speaks to me and inspires me to find my own musical thoughts, exploring in a similar language.

i think John mentioned before that he too had drawn some inspiration from “Highway Rider,” in his animated video of his tune “Twenty Seven.”

“The Valley Below” also explores some of the ideas that are prominent to my musical thoughts. Namely the influence of pop music in terms of a musical “hook.”  Being that is an instrumental piece, there are no lyrics to evoke imagery. So in terms of musical form, taking four measure sections and changing and developing them to create a larger shape or arrangement. They are like characters in a musical short story.

Week 37 – Ritual

A ritual has an inherent shape or form built in. From this one can let the story unfold in this space. This space is the possibility of sound or rather one possibility at one given time. Improvising to me is like observing and observance is a ritual.

I really like the vibe John and I got on this take. In fact there was only one take so there were no others to choose from. One of the challenges of playing in the duo format is how to to fill out the space, in terms of texture and rhythm. I guess I liked the vibe because there was a natural flow between the melody and the solo improvisations, an arc of circular nature from beginning to the end.